One of the great things about Florence is that much of the art can still be seen in the churches for which they were originally designed. There is so much great art in some of these churches they are virtually museums themselves.
In the 13th C, the two great preaching monastic orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, built churches on what were then the edges of town. The churches were vast in size, to accommodate the large audiences for their sermons. Over the centuries, notable local families endowed chapels within these churches and paid famous artists to decorate them, in order to advertise their own wealth and power. Today, most of these families are gone, but their art remains.
Santa Croce, the Franciscan church, is most famous for who is buried there (Michelangelo, Galileo…) and for who is not (Dante). The city never rescinded Dante’s order of banishment, even long after almost everyone had forgotten what the original argument had been about; Dante died in Ravenna. Years later, the Florentines built a tomb for Dante in Santa Croce, and even commissioned a large statue on the 600th anniversary of his birth. But the good citizens of Ravenna, who had sheltered Dante not only in life but for centuries of tumult thereafter, refused to give him up. Can you blame them?
The saga of Galileo’s remains, though, has a happier ending. When Galileo died, he was not in good standing with the Papal authorities; to avoid controversy over his burial, the local Franciscans took charge of his remains. When, a century or so later, the Church started to have second thoughts about their treatment of the great scientist, the Franciscans produced his remains and erected a large monument to him inside Santa Croce.
The church includes both a late 13th C fresco of the life of St. Francis, done in the older Byzantine style, and an early 14th C depiction of the saint’s death, done by Giotto less than 50 years later. Today, seeing these two frescoes side by side, it is possible to see just how revolutionary Giotto’s art must have seemed at the time.
Although the tombs get most of the attention, and most of the publicly available photos, my particular favorites include a marvelous Annunciation by Donatello, a pulpit depicting the life of St. Francis by Benedetto di Maiano, and a tomb executed by Desiderio de Settignano, a promising pupil of Donatello who unfortunately died young (which is why you’ve likely never heard of him).
The main altar was recently restored, which means you can see it again without scaffolding.
Santa Maria Novella, the Dominican church, is another repository of spectacular art.
A depiction of the Trinity, by Masaccio, features one of the earliest uses of perspective. It is fascinating to compare this to a painting of St. Anne, Mary and the baby Jesus in the Uffizi by the same artist – a kind of “female trinity.”
The church is most famous, though, for two famous fresco cycles: one set depicting the lives o the Apostles Phillip and John, by Filippino Lippi, and another depicting the lives of St. John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, by Domenico Ghirlandaio. Although the frescoes depict Biblical events, many of the details are contemporary, providing an enormous amount of information about contemporary clothing, housing, even childbirth customs.
Many of the faces of the onlookers depicted local notables, which must have provided a great deal of enjoyment for contemporary visitors. Maybe it’s just me, but Ghirlandaio’s third guy on the right, with the black hat, sure looks a lot like a time-travelling Jerry Brown.
Brancacci Chapel. On the other side of the Arno, the Brancacci Chapel, in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, has magnificent frescoes done by two of the best artists of the early 15th C, Masaccio and Masolino, in collaboration, with additions by Filippino Lippi some decades later. The frescoes depict the life of St. Peter, and includes, along with the usual miracles, some relatively unusual stories, such as St. Peter healing the sick with his shadow. Surely the most unnerving, though, is the depiction of the death of Ananias. According to the Acts of the Apostles, early Christians lived communally; the wealthier among them contributed money to the community, according to their abilities, and the money was distributed among the poor, according to their needs. One wealthy man, Ananias, secretly held back a portion of his money. Peter figured out right away what was going on, and asked him why he was lying to God, whereupon Ananias dropped dead on the spot. The history of the early church was a lot more complicated than we sometimes imagine.
Santa Felicità. Florence is a city where it’s often worth just peeking into a church to see what’s inside. The tiny church of Santa Felicità, for example, has two great works by the 16th C artist Pontormo. In his take on the Annunciation, the Virgin Mary is none too pleased on being approached by an angel – whatever the message, her life as she knew it was over. And you have to look at the Deposition for quite a while before you realize there’s no actual crucifix in the painting – very post-modern.
Bargello. No trip to Florence is complete without a visit to the Bargello, a sculpture museum.The Donatello David, completed around 1440, is believed to be the first nude statue in European art since classical antiquity. David’s androgynous appearance stands in sharp contrast to the more famous version by Michelangelo, executed some decades later.
The museum also includes magnificent work by Desiderio di Settignano, Luca Della Robbia, Andrea del Verrocchio, Benedetto di Maiano, and the young Michelangelo.
There is also a decorative arts collection which includes some spectacular ivories, some dating back to the 9th C, and some later work with decidedly non-religious content
Orsanmichele. My favorite place in Florence, though, has to be the tiny church of Orsanmichele. It was built in the early 14th C as a grain market – you can still see the chutes for grain delivery in some of the columns. It was converted into a church for the city’s trade and craft guilds a few decades later. Each guild commissioned a statue from a noted local sculptor. For many centuries, these statues stood in niches in the church’s exterior, but eventually they were moved indoors. These days you can see them close up in a (free!) museum upstairs, (the old grain silo).
Each guild chose its own subject – some were religious, some more personal. The stone merchants chose to depict four of their own. These guys could almost be talking to you today — you can even tell that one guy, immersed in his work, has forgotten to shave (some things never change). The most impressive work, though, has got to the the doubting Thomas by Andrea del Verocchio, a work of such astonishing delicacy it’s hard to believe it was executed in bronze.
Until next time….